Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Queen's Jewellery by Sheila Young

There is no reason to look at a book of lavish photographs of jewelry except pure pleasure. This book, published by Taplinger in 1968, shows the Queen of England in her prime -- not that the present is not also her prime, she being quite the formidable lady -- as a smiling and apparently very happy matron in her early forties. And why should she not be happy, at least in all these photographs from ceremonial and festive occasions? All her jewelry is real.

Having offered only pleasure as the excuse to look at a book of royal gew-gaws, I can't seem to help looking for more excuses. It must be the result of living in a virtuous, republican age. The author, Sheila Young, in quaintly stilted but still striking, formidable-lady prose, also looks for reasons to write, read, and think about the Queen's jewels. "To be a Queen Regnant must be, for any woman sensitive to the pulse of history, an altogether transcendent experience," she begins, and then she goes on answering the question "why this book" by jotting down the need for monarchical splendor, the historical associations of this ruby or that, the human joy in exquisite craftsmanship, and so on. For the average woman, however, the pleasure and astonishment of the book all come down to one fact. All this lady's jewels are real.

One wonders how these women, the Queen, her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, all decided what and how much to wear. Simple occasions would have been simple to deck for. Just the pearls, two brooches, small pearl earrings and a small bracelet. All real. But then there were, and are, the great events. The opera; the state visit; God help them, the Coronation. It ought to have looked tacky, even on these occasions, to wear a tiara and triple strands of diamonds and a dozen-roped pearl choker and cabochon emerald drops and an Order sash with two be-ribboned brooches featuring portraits of male relations and earrings and bracelets and rings. In the late nineteenth century, "the most brilliant period of sheer extrovert craftsmanship," a great lady added a stomacher to the inventory. There do seem to have been a few lapses in judgement here and there: a coronation photo of Queen Alexandra, consort to the pleasure-loving King Edward VII, shows her so loaded with plate as to resemble somehow a be-gemmed steam locomotive.

But for the most part it all "works," to use a term the more articulate nineteenth century would not have sanctioned. What is striking in all these photos is not only how regal the Queen and her ancestors look -- "the qualities of her presence, her upbringing and the support of her family" account for it, Young says -- but also how harrassed and dowdy the women in the background look, even though they are often the same age and dressed approximately the same as any one of Her Majesties. Poor things. Maybe they are scared to death of being in the Presence. Maybe their jewels don't work.

I have several dream-favorites among the Queen's collection. The Russian fringed tiara, stick after stick of diamonds (meant to look like a peasant headdress, how droll!), is one. Another is the simple diamond collet necklace, all twenty-six stones fat enough to stand up and argue with Queen Victoria's fat throat. The triple-stranded diamond collet necklace is also something that I could be persuaded to take to a desert island.

Forty years have gone by since this book was published. Queen Elizabeth is now in her early eighties, and looks exactly like her grandmother, Queen Mary, whose half-jaunty, half-acid eye -- her face can outface her jewels, which is a great thing -- looks out so frequently from these pages. Grandmother seems to have been the source of many of the present queen's favorite pieces. (Small wonder. The Cullinan diamond, or the 62- and 92-carat bits of it called "Granny's chips," were among Queen Mary's personal possessions.) But a Queen Regnant's transcendent experiences must eventually include bequeathing her jewels to a new generation; in a sense they are not hers at all, and that must at times give her not a transcendent but a chilly feeling.

How odd, too, for the average woman reader of jewelry books and only occasional panter after royalty, to reflect that at one time Princess Diana was in line to wear all these things. Now who's next?

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